Joshua 24: The Choice
April 3, 2011 Series: Joshua: Lord's Army
Topic: Old Testament Passage: Joshua 24:1–24:33
Today we finish the book of Joshua. And we conclude with Joshua’s farewell address v.2.0. In the first half, Joshua laid out to the leaders of Israel what the Christian life is all about. He called them to meditate on the Word of God, both promises and curses, so that they worship God as He fully is: faithful, loving, gracious, and merciful BUT ALSO just and jealous. The content of Joshua’s message v2.0 is similar, but the intent has shifted. Last week we looked at the focus of Joshua’s life, today we see the steps he takes to construct a plan for the continued spiritual health for the nation of Israel.
In chapter 24, Joshua begins by gathering the people in the presence of God. The assembly of God’s people, presenting themselves before God has a name: THE CHURCH. I mention this because we need to understand that the church is not an institution created by man. It is not a formal creation divorced from the intentions of an organic, life force God. The Church is God’s idea and His way of manifesting Himself to the nations. And they presented themselves before God. God is present everywhere (omnipresent), but is there in a special way when His people are gathered together to hear His Word. This is not an option. Hebrews tells us not to neglect meeting together as is the habit of some. The Christian life is not as personal as we all want to make it. We’ll see as we get to the end of this chapter that God calls His church to a more formal structure than we want to admit.
They gather at Shechem. Now Shechem is important because it was the place where God first promised Abraham the Promised Land (Genesis 12.6-7). They gathered back at the place where it all began to be reminded of how far they had come and what God had done to get them here. And this is how Joshua begins this sermon. He speaks with the authority of God (Thus says the Lord), retelling the story of their inheritance from God’s point of view. In this retelling, Israel looks much less like a triumphant nation, and much more as the recipient of God’s underserved grace.
The History (Abraham-Joshua)
They served other gods (2). The first thing made clear is that the patriarchs were not faithful before God called them. Abraham served other gods. He was not worthy of the great blessings. He did not meet go half way. He was chosen by God, based on God’s terms. I love the way that v.3 puts this, I took him. God is the active force in the establishment of the entire nation of Israel. In verses 3-5, the phrase I gave is repeated 3 times: I gave him Isaac, to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esua, I gave Esau the hill country of Seir. God is in control of the blessing.
And He is always working, whether we see it or not. The promise of God to Jacob could not have looked less like a reality than when Esau’s descendants were living prosperous in Seir and Jacob’s descendants were slaves in Israel, far away from the land that had been promised to them. I imagine there were times in the midst of this that the people of Israel simply gave up on the covenant. They could not imagine how things could change so drastically as to release them from the bondage of their slavery AND move them a great distance across the desert. There had to be times when they questioned the validity of that promise made so many years before; when they stopped believing that the God who had promised was still faithful. They forgot, but God didn’t. HE sent Moses and Aaron. HE plagued the Egyptians. HE brought His people out. HE brought them to the Red Sea. HE put darkness between the people of Israel and Egypt and crushed them with the water. Why? So that they could see God.
And your eyes saw what I did in Egypt. (7b) The whole story of the Exodus is one of God showing the Egyptians and the people of Israel who He (I AM) is. God did not need 10 plagues to free His people. He used the plagues to crush the false idols of the Egyptians. His show of power was small in comparison with what He can do, but it was effective in showing His absolute authority over the whole of His creation. And His worthiness above all man made gods. He is not only present in the supernatural, but also in the things that seem natural. We bring nothing to the table. Here is God’s description of the great battles fought against the Amorites.
They fought with you, and I gave them into your hand, and you took possession of their land, and I destroyed them before you. (8b)
This is the repeated declaration of God: I destroyed your enemies. But He also says, in the case of Balaam, the man whose donkey turned and talked to him, I made your enemies bless you. You did not defeat them, I gave them to you. It was not by your sword, but by MY hand. I AM God in both power and protection.
I gave you a land on which you had not labored and cities that you had not built, and you dwell in them. You eat the fruit of vineyards and olive orchards that you did not plant. (13)
The whole of this historical account is NOT just to show what God had done. It was NOT just to remind the people of what they had gone through. This was NOT a rallying cry for nationalism, a swelling of pride for the great people of God. This is a declaration of exactly WHO God is. Because we can’t move on to the implications until we grasp the source. Too often we want to hear a practical sermon that tells us how we should respond, rather than simply talking about the nature of God. And I am the same way. I was reflecting on the many conversations through the week and realizing how many of them are centered around ‘how to’ rather than simply who God is. It is important to talk about application, but we can never assume that those who are being given practical advice to know the why. We cannot begin to attempt to love until we see He who is love. We cannot begin to serve until we witness the submission of Jesus on the cross. Our response to God is borne out of an understanding of His nature. Joshua leads with God, then in v.14 we get the therefore.
Now therefore fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. This is the key verse in this entire chapter. Everything before gives us the motivation and reason, everything after is about how to maintain this. There is a delicate simplicity to this. We all wonder what the Christian life is, and here Joshua tells us: FEAR GOD, SERVE HIM SINCERELY, SERVE HIM FAITHFULLY. Simple idea, very difficult practice. It is difficult because we are broken vessels attempting to serve a holy God.
The idea of the fear of God is all over the Bible. Proverbs tells us that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. Deuteronomy continually tells us to teach our children to fear the Lord. It appears nearly 100 times all together. Which is a bit shocking. The buddy Jesus that most of us were introduced to did not seem very threatening. As a matter of fact, He is sometimes difficult to respect, let alone fear. So what is this fear? Certainly God does not want us to be scared of Him. Does He? I like the definition given by Ed Welch, in his book, When people are big, and God is small:
This fear of the Lord is reverent submission that leads to obedience…Like terror, it includes a knowledge of our sinfulness and God’s moral purity and it includes a clear-eyed knowledge of God’s justice and His anger against sin. But this worship-fear also knows God’s great forgiveness, mercy, and love.
Some of us need to return to the God of the Bible and reintroduce ourselves to a healthy fear of God. Because many try to serve sincerely and faithfully, apart from a fear of God. They find meaning in the service of God, rather than in God Himself. They take that which is meant to be a response, and use it as a tool. In that, they take the power that is God’s and harness it for themselves. These people exist right here today in this church. And it is sometimes hard to spot, because these fearless followers will talk all day long about serving God. They will be excited about the work of the church. In the end, though, they are still trying to find meaning in themselves, they are just doing it within the confines of the church rather than in their job, family, or local sports teams. They have the works, but they do not have the sincerity or the faithfulness. This is a trap, and it has caught a great deal of the Evangelical world. I wish I could say that the person described above is an unusual case, but too much of what I hear from the greater church is about what part I play in the story. How can God use ME? An obsession with personal gifts or personal mission (even within the church) for the purpose of self-empowerment.
The gospel is not about personal empowerment, but relationship with a Holy God. You cannot have sincerity and faithfulness without the fear of God, because it is impossible to have love for God if you think that He exists to serve you. Let’s make sure that we don’t jump straight to verse 14, without reading the first 13, the verses that proclaim: YOU are nothing, but God has made you something. This is the gospel. Romans 5 puts it this way:
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (6-11).
This is where we start. THE FEAR OF GOD.
Because if we don’t fear God we will fear something else. If we don’t worship God, we will worship something else. So Joshua gives the people a choice:
Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
Joshua is not clever in his call to serve God. He does not trick people into God. As a matter of fact, if you read through the historical account, He talks of the divine election of Abraham, the completing of His predetermined plan, His sovereign hand in the annihilation of two nations (Egypt and Canaan), and finishes by minimizing the role that Israel played in the whole thing. Not exactly non divisive subjects and feel good rhetoric. And I wonder, can we learn something from Joshua the Evangelist?
Not only should we lead with who God is, but I we need to present Him in all of His offensive glory. We seem to think that the best way to evangelize is to water the gospel down to its most acceptable pieces: love, forgiveness, eternal life, and then spring ideas like Galatians 2.20: I am crucified with Christ, it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me later to the shock of the poor ‘convert.’ How often I talk to people who say, ‘I have been in church for twenty years and I have never heard of God’s wrath.’ Or, ‘the pastor stopped talking about sin because it was making people uncomfortable.’ Or ‘had I known that this is what was required of me, I never would have signed up.’ Too many are attempting to make Christians without Christ. They go out trying to save people, but that was never our part. The role of evangelism is putting people face to face with God as He is, so that they can Fear Him, and in turn, serve sincerely and faithfully.
Not only does Joshua not present a palatable God, but he does not avoid the reality of other gods. He doesn’t shield his kids from potential gods. He does not worry that someone might be introduced to something that might somehow, in some way, cause them to stumble. Instead, he goes so far as to list the other possibilities. He tells the people: Here are your options:
- The gods of Egypt (the ones that God discounted in the plagues)
- The gods beyond the river (an impersonal connection to the earth and sun)
- The gods of the Amorites (storm god, he that lives on a mountain)
Joshua tells them, put them on a scale. Choose, because he knows it really isn’t really much of a choice. Our God is so infinitely better than any god we can create, it is ludicrous. If you don’t believe me, read Ecclesiastes, where Solomon takes on gods that hit much closer to home: wisdom, self-indulgence, toil, wealth, and honor. And comes to the conclusion:
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil (12.13-14).
Israel knows what the right choice is. They respond:
Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods, for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our fathers up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight and preserved us in all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed. And the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God. (16-18)
In some ways, they seem to just regurgitate back to Joshua what has already been said. You wonder if they actually feel the weight of what they are committing to. So Joshua challenges their pledge.
You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm and consume you, after having done you good.” (19)
So not only does Joshua give them a heavy God to begin with, but he does not accept lip service. Once again, Joshua is not concerned with getting the people to agree to ‘accept’ God. Let’s just think about that word that we so often use, have you accepted Jesus. God does not care if you accept Him. As James reminds us, even the demons accept that He exists. They even accept His power. They could rattle off a history of what God has done better than we could. But they look on it with disdain. They view it as an enemy constantly getting defeated. We must not just accept Jesus, but worship Him. He does not need, nor does He want your acceptance. He demands your fear, a fear that is built out of love. That recognizes that the same God who can do ultimately more than we can ask or think to benefit us, can also do us harm and consume us if we do not sincerely and faithfully serve Him.
So I plead with you, take God seriously. Do not accept Him because you think you should, or because you need something in your life and you are willing to TRY this, or because this girl said she would only date you if you were a Christian, or because your wife loves Him, or because you can see how Christianity could help to bring meaning to your life. Fear Him because He is God. You do not come to God on any merits but His. But you can choose what you do with what He has given you. Galatians 6.3-8 says:
For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. For each will have to bear his own load.
One who is taught the word must share all good things with the one who teaches. Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.
God will not be mocked. The people of Israel thought that they could just acknowledge God and keep going as usual. But Joshua makes sure that they understand that the sincerity of their commitment, and their faithfulness to a jealous God, must stem from choosing to sow to the Spirit rather than to the flesh. They must choose God alone, not in addition to, the other options. And they must make this choice over and over again.
So Joshua calls them to purge themselves of idols now, but to make a commitment to purity in the future. Why? Because he knows the power of group decision making and camp high mentality. He knows that right now it is easy to proclaim, We will serve the Lord as they do even after His warning. So rather than just declaring meeting adjourned, Joshua goes one step further. He makes a covenant. He sets up rules and statutes for the people. Starting in verse 22:
Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.” He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your heart to the Lord, the God of Israel.” And the people said to Joshua, “The Lord our God we will serve, and his voice we will obey.”
So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and put in place statutes and rules for them at Shechem. And Joshua wrote these words in the Book of the Law of God. And he took a large stone and set it up there under the terebinth that was by the sanctuary of the Lord. And Joshua said to all the people, “Behold, this stone shall be a witness against us, for it has heard all the words of the Lord that he spoke to us. Therefore it shall be a witness against you, lest you deal falsely with your God.” So Joshua sent the people away, every man to his inheritance.
A covenant is a solemn agreement that binds two parties to a set of promises, obligations, and consequences. We see a lot of covenants in the Bible. The majority of the covenants are between God and man. God makes a covenant with Noah in Genesis 9. A covenant with Abraham in Genesis 12. He reestablishes the covenant with Isaac, Jacob, and with Moses at Sinai. In these covenants, it is always God who sets the stipulations. But this covenant is a little bit different. This is not a divine covenant set by God. It is a covenant done in the presence of God, but entered into by two human parties. This is not a legalistic addition to what God has commanded, but rules and statutes to assure that what God has commanded is actually upheld.
People often fearfully balk at any ‘extra steps’ added to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. That it is wrong for the church, or its leaders, to ask you to make a commitment, or to hold you to a promise you have already made. Joshua shows us here that if we take sin seriously, we will want to be held accountable. He sets the people up as witness against each other, which means that they are responsible to hold each other to task. To call one another on sin. To care for the purity of God’s church. Why, because it is fun, and easy? NO. But because we fear God.
He also sets the stone up as a witness against them. When we have seen stones set up in the past, they have always existed as a memorial to a specific act of God. This is different. This is an earthly reminder of a heart promise. This isn’t to point to what God has done, but the fact that He continues to rule His creation with power. And just as the assembly of God’s people in Joshua are witnesses of the promise he earthly witness of God’s continual work is His church. This is how Paul describes the church in Colossians 1:
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.
It’s not about YOU. Joshua is serious about the purity of all of the people, not just himself. He knew that he would soon be leaving this world. He knew his people well. He had seen how easily they had walked away from God time and time again. He knew that upon his death, he would no longer be able to keep a careful eye over the people. And so he set up rules and statutes. He set up the covenant. Joshua takes sin against a holy God as a serious offense (as does God). Joshua makes it his last action to bind the people in the promise of faithfulness.
Not to spoil the story, but upon Joshua’s death, the people are unfaithful. They do receive the hand of God against them with the same power that had fought for them in the past. The covenant is fulfilled, but not in the way that Joshua would have hoped. The problem is, the people did not take sin as seriously as Joshua did. If they were anything like us, they probably convinced themselves that their sin was a little thing that was not hurting anyone. That they could go through the motions of the covenant, and God would be fine. That they were the nation of Israel, God’s chosen people, not realizing that they were only God’s people if they actually fear Him. God will not be mocked.
Joshua writes his own obituary in this chapter in verse 15. It is in the oft quoted, as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. Interestingly, the verb that is translated will serve actually means, has served, am serving, AND will serve. What Joshua is saying is not only from here on out my choice is for God. But that His life was a model of sincere and faithful service. And he leaves this earth quietly to live eternally in the presence of the savior. Having done everything he could with what was given to him.
Sam got to write the first half of a good eulogy last week:
I was a terrible, undeserving, and broken sinner, and yet Jesus loved me.
But I would like to add a second part to that in light of Joshua’s second farewell address.
He gave me new life, and I used every bit of energy I had left to make sure that He was glorified in my life.